This weekend a select team of 33 pastors in 22 states will be preaching on politics in a direct challenge to a federal tax statute that forbids churches from interfering with political campaigns.
The pastors are participating in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” as part of an effort called the Pulpit Initiative developed by the Alliance Defense Fund, an organization of lawyers dedicated to defending religious liberty.
As WND reported earlier, ADF launched the Pulpit Initiative to challenge a 1954 amendment to the Internal Revenue Service code submitted by Democratic Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson that permitted the IRS to revoke a church’s tax-exempt status if the preaching gets too political.
The ADF believes that pastors have a First Amendment right to speak on politics if they choose, and that by using its tax authority to limit pulpit content, it is the government, and not the preacher, who is violating the separation of church and state.
“Pastors have a right to speak about biblical truths from the pulpit without fear of punishment,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley on the group’s website. “No one should be able to use the government to intimidate pastors into giving up their constitutional rights.”
The ADF reported to the New York Times that it selected 33 pastors who were fully aware of the risks and benefits of participating in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” from a list of hundreds of preachers who had volunteered. Their names, however, have not been released because of reported threats to disrupt their services.
Pastor Wiley Drake of First Southern Baptist Church in Buena Park, Calif., who was cleared of wrongdoing earlier this year after complaints were filed over his personal endorsement of presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, has made it no secret he agrees with the ADF.
“We happen to believe in the separation of church and state,” Drake says. “And we believe that prohibiting a pastor’s sermon, either for or against a candidate, violates the (Constitution) of the United States.”
Before 1954, churches freely evaluated the politicians of the day on moral issues without fear of retribution. Lyndon Johnson’s amendment to the tax code, however, effectively censored sermons.
“As the U.S. Supreme Court has noted,” said Stanley, “the power to tax involves the power to destroy. The real effect of the Johnson Amendment is that pastors are muzzled for fear of investigation by the IRS.”
The ADF has promised it is ready to equip and defend the pastors selected for “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” even if that means going to court and challenging the tax code.
“We’re reminding them that they have the right to openly discuss the positions of political candidates,” ADF counsel Mike Johnson told WND, “and we’re going to be there for them if there’s a challenge.”
To opponents who want to take to court the issue over such First Amendment restrictions, he added, “It’s time to have that test.”
Among those opponents is Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an organization that works to report churches for violations of the 1954 Johnson Amendment.
Speaking of the Pulpit Initiative, Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United told the New York Times, “They act like this is a massive act of civil disobedience, but this is not like sitting in at a lunch counter. This is trying to change the law to give certain conservative churches even more political clout.”
ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley disagreed.
“ADF is not trying to get politics into the pulpit. … We need to get the government out of the pulpit,” he said.
As the 33 pastors plan for this weekend’s sermons, journalists have been eager to discover what they’ll be preaching.
The New York Times asked Rev. Luke Emrich of New Life Church, in West Bend, Wis., which candidate he planned to endorse on Sunday.
“I would say endorsement is a strong word,” he answered. “I’m planning to make a recommendation. I’m going to evaluate each candidate’s positions in light of Scripture and make a recommendation to my congregation as to which candidate aligns more so.”
The Los Angeles Times tracked down Rev. Gus Booth of Warroad Community Church in Minnesota, who already is the subject of a complaint filed with the IRS over a sermon in which he urged congregants to oppose Democrat senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton because of their positions on abortion.
“There is nobody who will ever tell me what I can and cannot say from behind my pulpit,” Booth told the newspaper, “except the Spirit of God or the Word of God.”